Assessment of the Relationship between Depravity and Political System Based On St. Augustine’s Viewpoint
What is the relationship between sin and political order for Augustine?
Saint Augustine is one of the most influential and important thinkers of all time. His works influenced the development of Western Christianity and Western philosophy. At an early age, he became attracted to a dualist Christian sect known as the Manichaeans, whose theology centred on a battle of Good and Evil. After moving to Milan, he was introduced to Platoic books, in which he claimed he found that God and his words were implied everywhere. As Neoplatoism was not far from Christianity, he could focus on the soul and the intelligible world at the same time. Taking his experiences into account, his thinking was heavily influenced by Maniceism and Neoplatiosm, particularly in his early years but he provides a comprehensive account on Christian doctrine with significant differences from his influencers. This essay is going to analyse the relationship between sin and political order for Augustine, presenting the parallels and differences between earlier thinkers while focusing on two of his writings: Confessions and the City of God. In doing this, the essay will discuss separately Augustine’s reasoning on sin providing his personal experience from Confessions, and his belief on political order, examining the two cities in the City of God. Then, the essay will discuss Augustine’s explanation of the sack of Rome, which was believed to be eternal. Finally, the essay will analyse Augustine’s belief on just wars and the responsibilities of soldiers.
Augustine’s conception of sin and human nature determines his psychology, his theory of society and above all his politics. Confessions is a spiritual autobiography of Augustine’s life and explorations of alternative religious and theological viewpoints. He spent several chapters in Confessions going through an event in mind, back to his early ages when he stole pears from a neighbour’s tree. He and his friends had no interest in eating the pears but they found delight in the crime itself, the act of stealing. He concluded that there is a certain depravity in human beings, a tendency to take pleasure in actions which are wrong, by the effect of the original sin and the weakened will. Augustine explains that the weakened will is the consequence of the original sin. His thinking on the nature of the human will establishes that before Adam’s Fall, Adam was provided with a capacity to decide between good and evil and he chose to sin. Augustine regards Adam’s Fall, as people being no longer able to choose the good but motivated by their desires to choose evil. In contrast to Aristotle, who stated that one has the power to choose the means to an end, he called this power ‘virtue’, Augustine stated the motivation or loves behind the choosing. He said that people now have the freedom to exercise their choice and to act but they need to embrace God and his interior teaching to choose what is right. Also, those who are redirected in their love through God’s grace, can understand their dependence and singular love for God, while no longer suffering from self-love and the love of being master over others, so that the root of all sins is erased by the belief in God. This contradicts Plato, who stated that the rational self-love and self-knowledge is able to lead to self-mastery and the psychological harmony of justice.
Augustine declared that the need for political organisation is a consequence of sin. According to this pessimistic understanding of human nature, political life itself is grounded in sin but it is necessary to regulate peoples’ inordinate desires and maintain peace and order. Also, Augustine shared the view of Aristotle that human beings are social and political creatures with their longing for wholeness, so that they can only be satisfied in political communities. At the same time, he rejected the Platoic idea of associating politics with happiness and flourishing, but he associated the end of politics with mere order, piety and duty. To better understand his view on political order, it is essential to contemplate from within his historical context. Being a late fourth, early fifth century North African Roman, he accepted the Roman conditions of dominance and subservience as the framework of all authority. He insisted that human nature has a need for absolute and conventional authority, while implying the power of ordinary citizens was almost non-existent, which was a huge difference from the vision of earlier thinkers and travelled well beyond his own times.
The reason for this empty notion of citizenship was that one cannot attain certainty in the material world. As true knowledge comes from contemplating eternal, unchanging truths, while the knowledge of changing objects in the material world is not true knowledge. It implies that true justice is not realised at state level but as humans are not characterised as certain knowers, they need to take things on trust and follow authorities, even if aware of abuses of power. His conception of the state was defined as that which has the monopoly of coercive force and for religious purposes it is neutral. Coercive force is needed to prevent people from sinning further, like the previously mentioned tendency to commit evil actions, and does it by punishment. Augustine saw punishment to be an essential condition of fallen life, as it constrains people to obey law and maintain peace within state. However, it does not re-educate people just makes them obey the law. Embracing God is the only possibility of being teachable and perceiving the truth. This view is similar to Plato’s sun allegory, as God is like a sun which illumines peoples’ minds and teaches them. In this view, church is the only society, described as the City of God, where true justice is realised written in the Bible, and by paying worship to God instead of self. This makes church superior to the state and permeate state with its principles.
Augustine’s composition of the twenty-two books of the City of God presents the perfect and imperfect state and explains his relationship between sin and political order. The two cities have been formed by two loves: the love of self and the love of God. Augustine describes all human beings as citizens of the earthly city; only those Christian people who predestined to join God are part of the heavenly city. This distinction is explained as many people avow themselves to be Christian, but as long as the principle of their conduct is based on self-love and not the love of God, they spiritually cannot belong to the city of God. While the city of God is a perfect state, conducted by the worship of God, based on the true wisdom of Bible, the political institutions in which humans live are created by them with utility for instrumental, self-focused selves. Whilst not denying the necessity of politics but contemplating the establishment of Rome, which was founded by a fratricide, Augustine declared that politics is underpinned by fallen man’s perverse self-love with domination by force or the threat of its use. Earthly city is characterised by war, cruelty, greed and a lust for domination, which was one of the biggest reasons for the collapse of Rome.
While Rome was believed to be eternal, its collapse was blamed on Christianity but Augustine explains that the sack of Rome was to be blamed on human nature and the imperfection of the state. People believed the Roman gods that for eight hundred years had protected Rome had permitted the fall of Roma eterna because they were now neglected. Although he was patriotic and proud of his cultural heritage, he saw that Rome was founded and maintained by injustice, violence, rapine and oppression and its decline into an imperialism was no more than a lust to dominate all men over the world. This lust after domination was Rome’s most serious failure, as the city was ultimately dominated by its own passion for domination. Realising those mistakes, he concluded that role of politics should be to minimize the opportunities for greed and lust for domination, to maintain humanitarian wickedness until the day of judgment by peace and order, and to maximize space for Christian love by establishing the material conditions in which church authority can attempt to break fallen man’s sinful habits.
Even though Augustine described the lust for domination or libido dominandi as sin, since no human being has natural dominion over another, but he was famous for having established that there were just wars to be fought. He stressed that wars are necessary when human conditions demand the attempt to construct impermanent moments of peace. Also, political and religious wars are just only if they are fought under the command of legitimate superior power. Otherwise, the act of violence could be considered as a gang of criminals infesting others’ lands. He goes further on thinking about soldiers’ responsibility during wartime killing, and concludes that soldiers are not regarded as either personally, nor morally responsible for the harmful acts they commit while obeying orders. He regards them as an agent of authority who acts only as a sword in authority’s hand. This conception is equivalent to the XXI century thinking on soldiers’ responsibilities. Even if he stated that there are just wars to be fought, he rejected the idea of war due to its devastating consequences and stressed that all human beings are craving peace and the highest form of peace lies in worshipping God.
To sum up, this essay’s main aim was to examine the relationship between sin and political order in Augustine’s view. In doing this, the essay analysed Augustine’s conception on sin and human nature and concluded that Augustine ranked the reason possessed by humans far below where the ancients had ranked it. This realisation was followed by the need for political order, as a consequence of humans’ sinful nature. The empty notion of citizenship and the imperfection of the earthly state was also addressed, analysing the two cities in the City of God. Finally, Augustine’s explanation of the sack of Rome and his conception on just war was discussed.
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